The modern concept of quality has always bothered me. The attempt to measure this elusive property has become increasingly formal (witness the proliferation of standards and certifications, especially ISO 9000 but also many others), and it seems to me that these days the goal is to set the bar at a certain expedient level, and then consistently produce products right at that level of quality. The level is not anywhere near 100%: it's more like 60% perhaps. I'm not sure if you can find that as a stated goal right within the standards themselves, but everyone is acting that way.
I don't want to work that way! When I work on anything, I want it to be the best that it can be! I think excessive formality in requirements is a waste of time, and is most necessary when you are employing engineers who don't give a hoot about what they are building, and aren't expected to understand the big picture. Cogs in the machine. That's not me! Where could I get a career where I'm not always being shoved into that box?
It's a recent phenomenon anyway. If you look back to the times when certain industries were much younger, usually you find better examples of quality from back then, before all this quality management malarkey was invented. The American automobiles of the 1960's and prior decades are legendary. There is the Apollo program (the success of which many suspect we do not know how to reproduce today). Appliances even... old refrigerators that are still running today. Light bulbs that remained continuously lit for over a century. Mixers (like Sunbeam or KitchenAid) that become family heirlooms. Rolls-Royce. Electrolux vacuums from any period up to and including the early 1980's. Apple computers and other devices. What do they all have in common? The engineers were not trying to build something that was merely adequate, with the expectation of obsolescence and replacement: they were trying to build the best product in that category, period. In these well-known cases they succeeded. Modern TQM has nothing at all on that.
What we are doing instead is getting bogged down. Management is teaching engineers not to give a hoot. Engineers are victims of planned obsolescence themselves: if their work can be outsourced cheaper in the third world, and the specs can be written such that management knows what to expect coming back, then it will be outsourced. It will not matter to management whether the product is the best that it can be, because there is such a large percentage of consumers that don't demand it, so the company can make an adequate amount of money even if nobody gives a hoot about anything. When engineers are persuaded to cooperate with this agenda, I call it "contractor mentality": the product doesn't matter, job security is the only thing that matters.
Rest assured, nothing of lasting greatness will be achieved this way. It's all a big loss, a waste of talent and natural resources, helping to accelerate the destruction of the environment and ultimately the destruction of the quality of life of all humanity. Some of the main principles for a happy, healthy, long life are that you should love yourself, love what you are doing with your life, act in a way which is harmonious with your own values so that there is no internal conflict, and you should love the things that you are using while doing those things that you love. A product which was produced without any love, is used for a short time and then disposed of, while you find that actually you need the next little tick in the mediocre type of "continuous improvement" that these companies strive for, does not help you towards this goal for your life. And working for companies that produce products that way is not helping you live that kind of life, either. The "ideal consumer" that they would like us all to be, always coming back for more because they very purposefully left us unsatisfied in just the right way, is not a maximally healthy person.
There is the long tail, people who really expect to get the best. So, there has to be a minority of companies that still try to satisfy those people. (However they never get the majority market share, because they don't compete quite as well on price.) That's the kind of work I want to do. I want to maximize the level of quality, to make it the best that it can be, the first time, and then still find ways to make it even better over the long term.
Organically grown food is like that too, but then we're talking about farmers rather than engineers. They should give a hoot about what they're selling too, which is pretty much incompatible with being uncaring, lowest-bidder employees of large farming conglomerates. But engineering and manufacturing products can be expensive (requires capital), and likewise when land is too expensive, farming is also a tough business for single-family entrepreneurship. We have to hope that in the future, technology will make it possible that every kind of production operation can be downsized again, so that the producers have the ability to care about what they are doing again. This is just one of the many aspects of quality-of-life that have been lost to industrialization.